A new grapevine: Web captures slurs

Media quickly spread news of celebrities' missteps, apologies

November 22, 2006|By Joe Burris and Nick Madigan | Joe Burris and Nick Madigan,Sun reporters

When comedian Michael Richards shouted racial epithets at black hecklers during a recent standup performance in Los Angeles, he joined a diverse list of prominent people who have made 2006 the year of the slur -- and the subsequent apology.

It's doubtful that more epithets are being used this year than any other, but new technology and new media have hastened the speed at which instances of their use are disseminated, debated and disdained.

Unlike in decades past, when it was more rare and remarkable that someone famous let loose with a racial or ethnic slur in front of a camera, it has become almost routine for a video or cell-phone camera to capture and spread the evidence of a bigoted remark through blogs and gossip Web sites -- intensifying the potential career damage and the efforts at damage control.

Richards' comments -- and subsequent apology this week -- immediately drew comparisons to that of actor/director Mel Gibson, who in July made anti-Semitic comments after being arrested for speeding and suspicion of drunken driving. Gibson subsequently apologized to the Jewish community and denied that he was anti-Semitic.

This fall, Grey's Anatomy actor Isaiah Washington made an anti-gay remark about co-star T.R. Knight, which prompted a scuffle between Washington and co-star Patrick Dempsey and Knight's disclosure that he is gay. Days later, Washington issued an apology "to everyone involved."

And this month, Democrat Jim Webb narrowly defeated U.S. Sen. George Allen, a Virginia Republican, after controversy flared from a racially insensitive word Allen used to describe a Webb campaign volunteer of Indian ancestry. Allen apologized, but his campaign never fully recovered. The Democrats' win gave the party a majority in the Senate for the first time in 12 years.

"Everything is caught on tape now," said John R. Logan, a sociology professor at Brown University who focuses on racial segregation and race relations. "We're hearing things we wouldn't have heard before."

"If 10 percent of America has racist attitudes, why wouldn't 10 percent of movie stars?" Logan asked. "It's usually hidden. Most public figures have learned they've got to be careful. Just because they're in a casual setting, they can't assume they can be carefree with what they say. They still have to watch their words."

Richards, who played Kramer from 1989 to 1998 on Seinfeld, launched a profane, racist rant at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood, Calif., on Friday night after being upset by heckling, apparently from two black patrons.

On Monday night, Seinfeld star Jerry Seinfeld came to his former co-star's defense on the Late Show with David Letterman, where Richards apologized via satellite. By then, the incident had mushroomed, in part because video of the nightclub meltdown was posted on Web sites, including TMZ.com, YouTube and CNN.com.

"You know, I'm really busted up over this, and I'm very, very sorry to those people in the audience, the blacks, the Hispanics, whites -- everyone that was there that took the brunt of that anger and hate and rage and how it came through," Richards told Letterman.

"There's a great deal of disturbance in this country and how blacks feel about what happened in Katrina, and, you know, many of the comics, many of performers are in Las Vegas and New Orleans trying to raise money for what happened there, and for this to happen, for me to be in a comedy club and flip out and say this ... you know, I'm deeply, deeply sorry."

The Late Show's ratings were the highest in nearly a year, according to Zap2it, a media site owned by the Tribune Co., which also owns The Sun.

But Marc Clarke, co-host of the Big Phat Morning Show on Baltimore hip-hop station 92.3-FM, criticized Seinfeld yesterday for defending Richards on Letterman. If Richards were truly sincere, Clarke said, he would have apologized on a show with a large black audience, such as Tavis Smiley's television show or Tom Joyner's radio show.

"What amazes me most is that people want to say the race problem does not exist anymore, and it's so obvious it does," Clarke said.

TMZ.com gained prominence from being the first to air the Richards video and to obtain the police report detailing Gibson's tirade. With its name reflecting the "Thirty Mile Zone" around Hollywood that encompasses the entertainment industry, TMZ and other sites, such as Gawker and The Smoking Gun, make up a new generation of media watchdogs that expose the frailties and dirty laundry of celebrities.

"Now anything can be recorded and verified," said Todd Boyd, a professor at the University of Southern California who specializes in race and popular culture and is the author of Young, Black, Rich & Famous: The Rise of the NBA, the Hip Hop Invasion and the Transformation of American Culture.

Boyd was especially irked at Richards' claim, during his apology on the Late Show, that he is not racist.

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